HOW ANDERS CARLSON-WEE PROVED THE IDENTITY POETS WRONG
This week a poem was published in the “pages” of the esteemed political magazine The Nation. Written by a highly regarded poet, Anders Carlson-Wee, his poem, a 14 line modern sonnet titled “How-To,” was quickly targeted by the niche group of people on Twitter and Facebook I have come to call the Identity Poets. The accusations came swift and hard against Anders Carlson-Wee and the editors of The Nation, with people demanding apologies and for the poem to be taken down. One poet even wrote a response poem to the piece, posted it on Twitter, and had other poets telling The Nation they should remove Carlson-Wee’s poem and put the response poem up instead, because it blatantly ridiculed white people. The Nation did not take the poem down. What happened instead was Anders Carlson-Wee issued an apology for the poem on his social media accounts, and The Nation issued an apology and posted their apology as an Editor’s Note above the poem in question, neither of which seemed satisfactory to the communities of the outraged.
I’ll freely admit, when I first read “How-To” I was unimpressed with it. It seemed a simple take on a subject I myself have happened to write many poems about, being a poem about homelessness. However, I knew from the opening line that people were going to be outraged over it, given what I have personally endured from my own work, and knowing the climate of the artistic community and the sensitivity toward “cultural appropriation” and other such topics the Identity Poets obsess over in order to draw attention to themselves. As soon as I read that opening line, “If you got hiv, say aids,” I said to myself, whelp, that is going to piss people off. If only I could earn a dollar for every time I correctly predicted outrage on the internet, I could potentially have a fistful of dollars!
In spite of myself, the more threads and discussions I saw about this poem on Twitter and Facebook, the more I began to analyze it, and try to find either the truth behind the accusations being leveled at the poet for writing it, or the truth of the merit of the actual poem. The more closely I read the poem, the more the layers peeled off, and the more meaning I discovered hidden in the misleading simplicity of the work. I was drawn into a debate with another poet on a thread hosted by another writer friend of mine, Robert Peate, in which this poet felt inclined to demand us to try and defend the merits of the poem based solely on the content of the poem. In doing so, I had several epiphanies about this poem, about how it succinctly and very cleverly reveals the faux intellectualism of the identity movement by showcasing their brazen nature to jump to conclusions about the artistic intent of white poets and how these conclusions are based on their own hidden biases and their own actual predispositions to fall prey to the same stereotypes they accuse other people of using. In doing this, in proving the fraud that lies behind the motivations of the identity poets when attacking other writers for perceived slights, micro-aggressions, and other offenses, their true natures are thusly revealed, in that all their outrage, all their virtue-signaling, all their attempts at silencing writers for producing work they perceive to be offensive, is in fact rooted in their own biases, their own versions of racism, and their own desires to see their work succeed, their communities succeed, to shift the attention always from the work at hand to themselves. It is simply put, phony posturing, a fallacy upheld by selfishness. And this poem, this utterly brilliant 14 line poem, proves it once and for all.
There are several things about the poem that work on a basic fundamental level. From the outset, the poem plays with the perception of the reader and immediately has the audience questioning exactly what the heck is being said and why. The opening line is a shock to the system. It is outlandish, and yes, offensive, but offensive with a purpose, as the best versions of shock-value ought to be. This is not shock for the sake of shock. This is shock meant to jar the reader and create a different mentality, to make the reader search deeper, to look inward and ask why. Who is speaking? Why are they speaking this way? What is the purpose? The narrator of the poem never reveals that information. The narrator could be masculine or feminine. The narrator could be black or white or any other variable of physical identities. This narrator reveals only that they are homeless, and through the lines of the poem, offers twists upon perception that play into making them more visible to others, and might earn them some version of charity. This is a shapeless entity in the context of the poem because in the world homeless people are generally the most ignored and invisible group no matter what country you reside in, what city you live in, what sidewalks you walk down on a day-to-day basis. Just yesterday, to illustrate this very fact, I saw a post someone shared in my Facebook timeline that showed people eating at a nice restaurant on the outside patio, enjoying their fancy cuisine and sipping wine from goblets, while two homeless men slept on the sidewalk not twenty feet away from them. This is a daily reality. On an even more personal level, when my wife, her parents, and I went out to eat last week in Portland at an upscale seafood place, a homeless man wandered the sidewalk and up and down the road in front of where we sat waiting for our table, shouting obscenities at an invisible person and trying to fistfight him, swinging his fists at nothing as he screamed incoherently, this shirtless man, so thin all the veins in his abdomen bulged bright blue and his ribs protruded grossly with every gasping breath, and NO ONE SAID A WORD TO HIM. One woman walked over from another restaurant at one point to make sure no one was calling the cops on this obviously mentally ill gentleman, but no one offered to help him or to console him or to look after his needs in any way. On his wrist was a hospital bracelet from where he had recently been discharged. Again, reality. Homelessness is a problem the world ignores. Carlson-Wee’s poem highlights this fact extremely well. The narrator even takes a very pointed stab at Christianity, the religion that prides itself on its supposed humanitarianism, when they say “Let em think they’re good enough Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray, say you sin. It’s about who they believe they is.” These lines point out the hypocrisy of the Christian religion that claims to love everyone, but notes that Christians only use charity to make themselves feel better, rather than to actually make a difference and a lasting change. A very apt, and a very cutting critique of religion, which pays no taxes in America, but generally doesn’t use their power to solve any problems, just let them exist so they can mete out tiny measures of subsistence to make them feel like they’re helping. The very last line of the poem “You hardly even there.” illustrates the invisibility and the bitter truth the world just continues to turn a blind eye toward. This is a solvable problem if only anyone really cared.
So with this very, unarguably and objectively positive message behind the poem, succinctly and pointedly achieved in the 14 lines of a modern sonnet, the most beloved of poetic forms, one must wonder why all the outrage over it? Aside from the shocking lines in the poem about conflating HIV with AIDS, and the word “crippled,” which earned accusations of ableism and insensitivity to the LGBTQ community (another grossly biased assumption there), the poet was accused of donning literary blackface for the language choices in his vernacular usage, accused by many of co-opting AAVE (commonly known as Ebonics) for the voice of the poem. In this accusation, the accusers are truly showing their own inability to fall prey to cultural stereotyping, as it is only in the mind of the accuser that the speaker of this poem is a person of color. There is nothing whatsoever in the poem to lend credibility to the accusation. The speaker of the poem never reveals their identity, as previously stated, the speaker of the poem can be anyone. The language of the poem is a simplified dialect, perhaps someone hardened by life on the street, someone perhaps less educated than most, or just a person used to speaking in shorthand. Nothing about the language is intrinsically connected to AAVE. So, again, the poet has played with the perception of the reader to reveal the inherent biases of the audience! If you leap to the conclusion that the speaker of this poem is a person of color, what does that say about how you perceive people of color? YOU, the reader, have just unknowingly admitted that YOU BELIEVE THIS IS HOW BLACK PEOPLE TALK. This is a stereotype you allow to exist in your own mind. By accusing the author of using a stereotype that they did not use, you are admitting you hold this stereotype in your own psyche, and it is something you must contend with on your own.
This is ultimately why I believe this poem is perhaps one of the most important poems to have been written in the last ten years. It reveals so much about humanity, says so much about human perception, and ultimately pulls the curtain back on identity politics. In causing so many people to leap to such vile conclusions about the nature of the work and the intent of the work, to cause them to lash out at the author, to cause them to demand the work be removed and the author and the editors to make apologies for things they did not do, the outraged audience in this case is shown to lack an ability to think critically about art, to look past their own biases and knee-jerk reactions, and their accusations reveal more about their character than that of the character of the person they are attacking. This is the ultimate example of art being used as a mirror. The accusations came against this poem because the writer happens to be a white male. The current trend in these circles of outrage is to attack, silence, and delegitimize the works of white male authors who dare to write things outside their own identities. But, Carlson-Wee, in his ability to shine his poetic mirror back at the audience, has proven very effectively, that these accusations are coming from a place of inauthenticity. In this case, the accusers are showing their own inherent racial bias, in fact their own guilt of holding racist presuppositions, because in accusing this author of racism, they are the ones being racist. Their racism comes in two forms, first making the assumption that the speaker of the poem must be black, and second, that Carlson-Wee is wrong for writing it because he is white. How beautiful is this twist of irony?
I firmly believe that this was all intended to happen. That the author and the editors knew this outrage scenario would play out just as it has and they would issue apologies knowing those apologies would not be acceptable to the mob. The final act of this should be when Carlson-Wee issues an artist statement explaining everything as I have outlined in this essay, and drives the final nail in the coffin of this phony identity movement in modern poetry. This has gone on long enough. No one has the authority to police others as to what content their art can contain. No one has the authority to demand art be removed from the public because it happens to encroach upon their own sensitivities. No one has the authority to demand apologies from other artists, and artists should never have to apologize for their work. Art is in itself one of the purest manifestations of freedom. And art criticism should have never started meaning artists have to accept censorship by mob rule. The way this has played out shows just how vapid and meaningless the concept of critique has become. There was no real attempt at critique of this poem! It was simply shouted down from the pulpits of self-righteousness by people hoping to earn pats on the back from their conformist peers. This has to be why The Nation, although issuing their seemingly spineless apology as an editor note, did not actually take down the poem in question. They know this is all a performance piece still in action. When it is all said and done, many people will have to eat a large plate of crow and be forced to admit some hard truths about themselves. And for that I say thank you, thank you Anders Carlson-Wee, for writing a brave poem, for being a true poet, and for shining a hard light into the darkness that has become the identity movement in modern poetics. It had to be done by someone, and it is better now than never.